When NPR book reviewer Maureen Corrigan was in high school in New York City, she was quiet and shy. If she spoke up, it was in English class. When she started teaching in graduate school, she found her voice. “I had to let students know why a short story by James Joyce is something they should pay attention to,” she said. “That’s when I found my speaking voice.” If you listen to NPR book reviews, you know Corrigan’s voice: friendly, intelligent and critical (in the best sense of the word). You can hear that same voice in her latest book, And So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures. We spoke with Corrigan about her life as a reviewer and writer. An edited version of the conversation follows.
I started out writing reviews for the Village Voice at a time when they would let someone like me who had no experience writing book reviews and no professional identity write reviews. The only criterion was: Are you smart? I had a friend there who asked if I wanted to write book reviews. And I said: “Sure.” It was such a thrill to be able to be funny and passionate and sarcastic – whatever the book called for. When I was in English grad school, it was not welcomed if you tried to insert any of your own voice into your writing. I loved being able to talk about books with a whole range of shadings and emotions and not just sticking to theory or intellectual matters.
For this book, I went into the archives at Princeton, the University of South Carolina, the Library of Congress and the New York Municipal Archives. I take notes by hand, which makes me sound like a dinosaur. When I was ready to begin writing, I went through piles and piles of notes and put Post-it notes signaling which pages fit in with themes that were emerging and worth pursuing about Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby. I also gave my book to Morris Dickstein. In addition to being a renowned American lit scholar – in line with Alfred Kazin and Edmund Wilson and the public intellectuals of the 20th century – he also writes for a larger audience. He was my ideal reader. Every couple of months or so I would also go back and read Gatsby. I didn’t want to get so inundated by everything that’s out there that I lost sight of the fact that my book was me talking about this novel that I think is the greatest novel in American lit, and a novel I’ve read for decades. That’s at the heart of the book: me as the reader.
As I am writing, I start to make connections and things start to happen. When you’re in that space – which I love – you’re almost living the book, thinking about it constantly and writing every day and in that world. Connections begin to happen. It ties into New Journalism and the idea that if you’re going to render an opinion about something, your reader should know who you are and where this opinion is coming from. It should not be an oracular voice of God. It’s very natural for me to braid together my memories with Fitzgerald’s biography and then the act of reading.
You have to write what is in your heart and your mind and your imagination, and that’s the place where it has to come from. I don’t think that looking at what sells is the way to start a novel or a work of nonfiction. I get about 200 books a week at my house. I’m always waiting to be surprised or bowled over. You don’t want to be bored. The advice is: Let the words come out of you and then they will be true, as Langston Hughes said. That’s the best advice. And: Don’t quit your day job.
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